Thank you, Victor [Fortuno]. It’s good to be with you, and I’m especially glad to join you in welcoming Marc, Mariah, Jackie and Dominique. These outstanding students have distinguished themselves on the César Chávez campus and in the communities they serve. We’re proud of your hard work, and we look forward to great things from each of you.
It’s an honor to be included in today’s celebration and to join you in recognizing the contributions that the Legal Services Corporation makes all across our country. Your partnership with the Justice Department has been, and will continue to be, essential to our country’s ongoing pursuit of justice.
In the last 35 years, LSC has proven to be one of our nation’s most effective agents for meaningful change. You empower Americans who are struggling to live with dignity, to keep their jobs, to stay in their homes and to secure basic necessities for their families. Quite simply, you change and improve lives. And you’ve succeeded in pushing our nation toward progress and fairness. These are the achievements we’ve gathered to celebrate.
As today’s program points out, for more than half a century, Americans have come together during Black History Month to reflect on how far our nation and, especially our African-American communities, have traveled on the long road toward equality and freedom. Today, we commemorate this progress. But I believe that Black History Month provides more than an occasion to remember our history. It is also a time to set our course for the days ahead.
I would argue that we can only begin building the future we want for our country, for ourselves and for our children, by looking back on this nation’s long history of struggle and progress. We must understand and learn from the past we share. We must draw strength from it. And, perhaps most importantly, we must make peace with it.
For well over two centuries now, the American people have been striving to fulfill the promise of our justice system. Like you, I have great faith in this system. In fact, I’d argue that it’s one of the most laudable aspects of our democracy. But I also realize the legal system we serve hasn’t always exemplified our highest ideals.
Despite the great progress we’ve seen in my lifetime, it wasn’t so long ago that African Americans were prevented from owning property, from obtaining home or business loans, and from joining labor unions. Once such prohibitions were abolished, LSC lawyers have been integral to preventing these illegal practices from continuing. In representing families and individuals subject to discrimination in each of these areas, LSC lawyers have proved that our legal system provided the tools to remedy these injustices. Today’s LSC lawyers continue to contribute to the economic development of African-American families and communities throughout our country.
Of course, there was a time, before the establishment of LSC, when our legal system undermined the very rights and privileges it existed to protect. There was a time when the American principles of justice, liberty and equality were applied unequally to women and men and to people of different races.
This year’s Black History Month theme, "The History of Black Economic Empowerment," calls us to examine this past, including the history of our justice system.
Confronting this history can, at times, be disturbing. In the years after slavery was abolished, some local law enforcement officials in the former slave states used the law to build and sustain a criminal justice system that allowed African-Americans to be sold and rented to white business and plantation owners. In effect, this system reinstituted and preserved the condition of slavery for a people who were newly emancipated. And it did so without interference from federal officials.
This history shocks our collective conscience. And it should. But it also helps us understand the persistent suspicion – held by some – that the criminal justice system does not treat African Americans and other people of color fairly. And it can illuminate and explain the extent to which our old legal system has impacted the present economic conditions of some African-American communities. Indeed, this history is a powerful reminder of the always-persistent effects of injustice, and of the economic consequences that civil rights violations can cause.
These consequences are, perhaps, most evident when examining the current state of our economy. Today, we have faced the most serious financial crisis in generations. Certainly, this recession has affected Americans of all racial and ethnic groups, classes and ages -- closing off both blue- and white-collar job prospects. However, the consequences for African-American communities have been far more severe than the national averages. Today, joblessness for young black men, those between the ages of 16 and 24, has reached proportions not seen since the Great Depression. And young black women of the same age now have an unemployment rate of more that 26 percent. This is particularly troubling when you consider that the unemployment rate for all 16-to-24-year-old women is about 15 percent.
These economic disparities will have long-term consequences for all Americans. And they should concern all Americans. We must not allow this next generation, especially young African Americans, to become the first generation in decades not to keep pace with or exceed their parents’ standard of living. LSC is an ally in this work. In fact, LSC-funded programs are critical to ensuring that employment practices are not used to illegally discriminate against any category of job applicants.
We at the Justice Department have recommitted ourselves to strengthening civil rights protections in employment, housing and voting. Simultaneously, we’re working to safeguard our markets, combat financial crimes and restore the opportunities necessary to rebuild our economy. I believe that every American, and certainly every one in this room, can play a role in advancing this work.
Today’s economic challenges prove that, despite the progress we’ve made in creating a more equal nation, we have much more to do. It may be tempting – when you look at the diversity of people walking the halls of Congress or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that equal justice has been achieved for all Americans. We have made tremendous progress as a nation. But it will take more than the election of the first African-American President to fully secure the promises of equality and justice and conform our present reality with our founding idealism. And it will certainly take more than the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General to ensure that the American justice system reflects our highest principles and the rights our Founders intended.
That said, I have great hope for our future. Time after time, the American people have proven that we will not become victims of, chained to, a sometimes painful history. Instead, we must let the lessons we have learned hasten our work and press us further toward justice and through new doorways of economic opportunity.
As we look toward this future, I can’t help but be optimistic. I recall Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic reminder that, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." I believe this, in part, because of the progress I’ve witnessed during my own lifetime and the healing I’ve seen. As a child, I cheered on the Brooklyn Dodgers and their star second baseman, Jackie Robinson. As a boy, I watched Vivian Malone – a woman who later became my sister-in-law – step past George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. As a teenager, I felt the scope of my own dreams expand as I saw Thurgood Marshall take his historic place on our nation’s highest court. As a man, I’ve had the privilege to serve alongside our nation’s first African-American President. And, today, I experience on a daily basis the honor of leading our nation’s Justice Department as its first African-American Attorney General.
There is no question that our nation has made tremendous progress on the path towards justice. And although this progress may seem slow and halting at times, each of us has the power to make sure it’s inevitable. Together, we are building a more inclusive, more just and more perfect union. And in so doing, I believe we will arrive at a future consistent with our dreams and worthy of our founding documents.
I’m proud to call you partners in this work. I’m grateful to count you as stewards of our justice system and advocates for equal opportunity and economic empowerment. And I’m grateful for this opportunity to join you in looking forward to all that our nation can, and will, accomplish in the days and years ahead.